In The Construction of the Viewer: Media Ethnography and the Anthropology of Audiences. Eds. Peter Ian Crawford and Sigurjón Baldur Hafsteinsson. Denmark: Intervention Press in association with the Nordic Anthropological Film Association, 1996, 270-296.

"Can a Documentary Be Made of Real Life?":

The Reception of An American Family

The reason I think so many people are talking about this program is not only that it touches on real people's lives, but it has made a lot of people aware of the fact that in a television show there is an interaction between filmer and subject.

-S. I. Hayakawa, 1973.

An American Family captivated the imagination of the American viewing public for several months in 1973, generating considerable controversy. The twelve-week observational documentary series, broadcast on public television, chronicled seven months in the lives of the Loud family of Santa Barbara, California, including the divorce proceedings of the parents. Producer Craig Gilbert's use of dramatic story-telling techniques in a non-fictional account of family life blurred conventions of different media forms. Like most serial television, An American Family emphasized character over plot, concentrating on the different personalities of the family members, especially Pat Loud and her oldest son Lance. Unlike the documentaries of Frederick Wiseman, which block identification with individual characters, An American Family encouraged this focus, catapulting the Louds to media stardom. 'Eventually', one critic admitted, 'we began to root for our favorite Loud' (Rosenblatt, 1974). No less an authority than anthropologist Margaret Mead, a friend of Gilbert, claimed that the series 'may be as important for our time as were the invention of drama and the novel for earlier generations: a new way to help people understand themselves' (WNET, 1973b).

The documentary received widespread attention in the national press for three consecutive months. People talked about the series endlessly; critics panned and applauded it. The subjects, the Loud family, entered the discussion vigorously, along with the producers, making An American Family the most hotly debated documentary ever broadcast on American television. The Louds gave interviews, wrote articles, and appeared on talk shows such as The Mike Douglas Show and Phil Donahue. The reception


of An American Family eventually took on a life of its own, little concerned with the original twelve hours of images and sounds; the series itself was left behind (Staiger, 1992, p. 46). As reflected in reviews, the documentary became swamped in controversies concerning the American family and sexuality, the state of the nation, the role of television, and the representation of reality.

Gilbert wanted to make a series about ordinary people in ordinary circumstances; he ended up making celebrities of the Louds. Mrs. Loud wrote and published her autobiography, Pat Loud: A Woman's Story. Mr. Loud, for his part, was solicited to host a television game show (Chicago Tribune, 1973b). The five children performed as a rock band on The Dick Cavett Show, Delilah appeared as a guest contestant on The Dating Game, Lance posed in the nude for Screw magazine, and Mr. Loud modeled in his bathrobe in Esquire.

The 12 March 1973 cover of Newsweek featured the Louds for a series of articles on the American family. In the 1970s, the family became the central arena for debates about the state of American culture, epitomized in works like Theodore Roszak's The Making of a Counterculture (1969) and Charles Reich's The Greening of America (1970). Social theorists started to think of the family as 'an intimate battleground' (Melville, 1977, p. 240). Arguments about the decline and renewal of American society pivoted around particular visions of family life, fueled by anxiety over the divorce rate, the women's movement, new sexual mores, gay liberation, and the generation gap (Berger, 1983, p. 16-17; Skolnick, 1991, p. 2-6). Reich's critique of mainstream American culture included the role of the media, 'Many attitudes, points of view, and pictures of reality cannot get shown on television; this includes not only political ideas, but also the strictly non-political, such as a real view of middle-class life in place of the cheerful comedies one usually sees' (Reich, 1970, p. 79). Craig Gilbert was not the only producer who tried, in the 1970s, to redefine the image of the American family inherited from old television shows (Newcomb, 1983, p. 5; Taylor, 1989, p. 2). Like many social critics of the time, Gilbert believed that the American family was disappearing, becoming 'obsolete' (Loud, 1974, p. 80).

The first episode of An American Family was broadcast on Thursday, 11 January 1973, at 9:00 p.m., eastern standard time, the same evening as the family drama The Waltons. PBS broadcast the next eleven episodes each following Thursday at the same time, encouraging ongoing viewer involvement with the characters. As the production secretary, Alice Carey, noted, 'Viewers built their weeks around An American Family, because it was like watching live soap opera' (Ruoff, 1989). Viewing patterns, coupled with attitudes about television in American life, played a crucial role in the way the documentary was watched, interpreted, and criticized. In the early 1970s, television did not have a reputation as a serious art form, as movies did, in American culture (Ruoff, 1991, pp. 6-7). Recently, scholars have recognized the importance of television in the dissemination of documentary film, without fully considering the historical specificity of television audiences (Hockings, 1988; Crawford, 1992, 1992a; Loizos, 1993; Colleyn, 1992). An


American Family reached an unusually broad audience for a documentary, especially a series broadcast by PBS. Reviewers estimated an average audience of ten million for each episode (Newsweek, 1973c), relatively small for commercial networks, but undoubtedly the high point for American public television. In the mid-1970s, audience ratings for popular programmes on PBS, such as Masterpiece Theater, were only 2.5 million households (Morrisett, 1976, p. 168).

While many reviewers saw the series as the high point of film and television realism, others compared it to fictional forms. Large segments of the audience contested the impression of reality that the series offered. On the one hand were critics who believed An American Family was 'more candid than Allen Funt's wildest dreams' (Rock, 1973) and that 'never was there greater realism on television except in the murders of Oswald and Robert Kennedy' (Rosenblatt, 1974). On the other hand, some reviewers claimed that it was 'a most artificial situation' (Hayakawa, 1973), 'a bastard union of several forms', and that 'the mirror is false' (The Nation, 1973).


Reviews, editorials, and interviews appeared in a wide variety of mass circulation magazines and newspapers including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Variety, Vogue, Time, Ms., Harper's, The Atlantic, Village Voice, Ladies Home Journal, The Nation, New Republic, Society, Esquire, Commentary, America, Newsweek, Commonweal, and many others. A three-page article by Margaret Mead in the 6 January issue of TV Guide introduced the series as a novel experiment in television (Mead, 1973). The WNET advertising campaign, together with reviews that appeared before the first episode was broadcast, set the agenda for responses to the series. Reception studies of film and television, therefore, should not be conceived in isolation of the publicity campaigns that accompany those media (Bennett, 1987, p. 249).

This chapter examines the responses of professional television and cultural critics, of varying degrees of competence and specialization, who wrote newspaper and magazine articles in the 1970s. The absence of critical standards for documentaries, and the innovative style of An American Family, made for a tremendous variety of responses to the series; generic constraints were not fully operative (Feuer, 1987, p. 118). Reviewers compared the series to the real world, home movies, television commercials, talk shows, variety shows, situation comedies, soap operas, novels, plays, sociological studies, and documentaries.


While historical reception studies suffer from the absence of ethnographic data about ordinary viewers, ample evidence exists of the unusual resonance An American Family had with the American public. A reviewer from Esquire contended, 'I doubt if in the history of the tube there has been so much talk about anything' (Miller, 1973). In the words of the Chicago Tribune, the series 'made the trials of the Louds a shade better known than those of Job. Everybody wrote about them and dissected them' (Sharbutt, 1973). According to Newsweek, An American Family 'made household words out of Bill and Pat and Lance and Kevin and Grant and Delilah and Michele Loud' (1973b).

WNET's Press Release

WNET's press release for An American Family attempted to channel audience expectations of this landmark series. Many of the early reviews amount to little more than publicity, confirming the cinematographer's comment that 'Most television critics just take a press release and run with it' (Ruoff, 1993). The press release contrasted the series with the depiction of families on situation comedies and soap operas, thus supplying intertextual references for reviewers (WNET, 1973b). In addition, it promised a national character study in the guise of a portrait of one upper middle-class family, 'The series aim in focusing on one specific family was to illuminate and reflect facets of behavior, feelings, and attitudes common, in varying degrees, to all American families' (WNET, 1973a). The idea that the series investigated the American dream appeared first in the WNET portfolio, 'The members of the Loud family have been shaped by the national myths and promises, the American dream and experiences that affect all of us, whether we be rich or poor, black or white, young or old' (WNET, 1973a). The press release argued for a commonsense notion of shared American identity that was, at the time, very much under attack from revisionist critics and social activists (Wilkinson, 1988, p. 30).

The press packet established that the family was materialistic and rich, linked, not by bonds of love, but by modern communications systems. The 'Profile of the William C. Loud Family' accentuated the wealth of the family to the point of caricature,

The Louds live in a modern eight-room stucco ranch house. Set on a scenic mountain drive amid the lush shrubbery and trees of southern California, the Loud home serves as the headquarters for the well-traveled family. (Pat may be in Eugene, Ore., while Lance is in Paris and Kevin is in Australia, but all seven Louds remain very much in touch with each other through regular phone calls to the Santa Barbara 'message center.') When the family is home, they are often joined by friends for gracious dinner parties, rock-group rehearsals, class meetings or a swim in the pool. When they leave their house, the Louds are able to choose a means of transportation from among the four vehicles they own: a Jaguar,


Volvo, Toyota and Datsun pickup truck. In addition to its seven human inhabitants, the Loud household is alive with a pack of family pets including a horse, three dogs (a large crossbreed and two standard poodles), two cats and a bowl of goldfish (WNET, 1973e).

The use of the words "headquarters" encouraged reviewers to see a modern corporation or military outpost, rather than a family. The 'Profile' suggested that the house was a soulless corporation rather than a home, while the emphasis on travel hinted at a highly mobile, rootless, nuclear family, unattached to other social institutions. The sheer number of cars underlined the family's affluence, as did the notices about the pool and the horse. The press portfolio linked the American dream, through the medium of the Loud family, to the pursuit of wealth and the consumption of material goods.

The WNET press packet included a portrait of the Louds, with all the family members dressed up for the occasion, together with two of their dogs, smiling directly at the camera. The Louds made this family photograph for their 1972 Christmas card and, as such, it represented the antithesis of observational cinema, a style that attempted to record spontaneous behavior without acknowledging the presence of the camera. The photograph offered a view of happy middle-class family life that An American Family deliberately challenged; its circulation in the press packet presented an ironic juxtaposition of competing views of the Louds. The family portrait was widely reprinted in the publicity campaign for the series--it appeared with the advertisements in the New York Times--and was eventually featured on the cover of Newsweek for an article devoted to divorce and the American family.

Although producer Gilbert wanted viewers to watch the series without the benefit of an on-camera host and the voice-over commentary that accompanied most documentaries, the press release provided an explanatory framework for An American Family. The press materials, in fact, contained a more explicit statement of purpose than the series itself and, in this way, contradicted the producers' desire to show family life without telling viewers what to think, to present what the associate producer Susan Lester called 'the discomfort of the real' (Ruoff, 1989). Although the press release established a horizon of expectations, one of the novelties of the series for a mass television audience was, unquestionably, the absence of a surrogate authority figure who explained the events, a commonplace of television documentaries (Silverstone, 1985, p. 170). The observational style of the film suggested that viewers could decide for themselves about the Louds; the press packet, however, made clear that the family was in trouble.


The WNET Advertising Campaign

The advertising campaign that ran in the New York Times and in newspapers across the country served a similar function as the press packet. (The publicity department at WNET developed the ad campaign in consultation with an independent firm run by Lawrence Grossman.) The first ad appeared in the 11 January edition of the New York Times for that evening's broadcast of episode one. Bold capitol letters asked, 'ARE YOU READY FOR AN AMERICAN FAMILY?', underneath the family photograph, suggesting that something outrageous and bizarre was coming on PBS. The ad quoted Margaret Mead's claim about the novelty of the series. By this time, the Louds' divorce was no longer a secret. The 6 January issue of TV Guide simply noted, 'By way of introduction, the series opens with scenes from the last day's filming--at a New Year's Eve party in the Louds' California home. It is an affair mainly for the children--the Louds have separated. (Eight months after the filming was completed, the marriage had ended in divorce.)' (TV Guide, 1973a). Of course, the press portfolio provided this information, 'During the filming of An American Family, the Louds' 20-year marriage collapsed, ending in a separation' (WNET, 1973b). Viewers, then, were liable to know the general outline of the series before ever tuning in to the broadcast. The publicity materials served to limit the polysemic quality of the twelve-hour observational documentary (Bennett, 1987, p. 247).

The advertisement in the New York Times for the second episode on 18 January was considerably more inflammatory. Bold capitol letters proclaimed, 'HE DYED HIS HAIR SILVER', for the episode that focused on Lance Loud. Lance's face appeared torn out of the family photograph and the ad called attention to his difference from the rest of the family, 'He lives in the Chelsea Hotel on Manhattan's lower West Side. And lives a lifestyle that might shock a lot of people back home in California'. The advertisement exploited Lance's sexuality, noting that he dyed his clothes purple 'As a personal expression of. . . something. . . something he wasn't fully aware of at the time'. (The wording of the ad may explain why most critics claimed, erroneously, that Lance came out of the closet during the making of the series.) The advertising campaign gave clues as to the events to come, enticing audiences to stay with the programme. The New York Times ad teased on 15 February, 'Next week problems between the couple begin to reveal themselves, and their son Grant has a car accident. The following week Pat decides to file for divorce. Follow the drama of TV's first real family'. Clearly, the serialized broadcast schedule helped build audience loyalty, keeping An American Family in public view. In fairness to WNET, later advertisements were less sensational, conceivably even in response to criticisms of earlier ads. However, the first ads were more important than the subsequent ones in establishing a horizon of expectations. By 8 February 1973, the advertising campaign included quotes from reviews from the New York Times, Saturday Review of the Arts, Harper's Bazaar Magazine, TV Guide, Cue, and Vogue. The 8 February ad stated, 'Newsweek described this series as 'a starkly intimate portrait of one family struggling to survive a private civil war.' See for yourself' (New York Times, 1973). By this time, however, the advertising campaign was becoming less significant in comparison with reviews that appeared in newspapers and magazines. Articles in the national press continued to set the agenda for


critical responses in the months that followed, often being quoted in other reviews as well as in advertisements.

Critics relied heavily upon the press portfolio for rhetorical strategies to describe An American Family. The roll-call of material wealth, lifted verbatim from the press release, cropped up in many reviews. The New York Times noted that '[the Louds found in Santa Barbara] their approximation of the American Dream--an eight-room ranch house, a horse, three dogs, a pool, a Jaguar, a Volvo, a Toyota, and a Datsun pickup' (Harrington, 1973). The reviewer synthesized the idea of the American dream as a series of material goods. The press packet simplified the reviewing process; critics would have had difficulty piecing together this string of possessions just by watching the twelve episodes. Indeed, the absence of this kind of detail was one of the principal weaknesses of the observational style.

The press release helped establish the Louds as the wealthy but discontented Californians, the inverse of the poor but virtuous Waltons of Virginia. John J. O'Connor described the family in the New York Times, 'Besides five children, they have three dogs, a horse, two cats and a bowl of goldfish. Their house is equipped with a pool, a small recording studio and four cars, all foreign makes. The overall image is of toothpaste-bright affluence, California-style' (1973b). This symbiotic relationship between the reviews and the press portfolio suggests that early articles were little more than an extension of WNET's publicity campaign. This dependence may plague reception studies that rely on newspaper and magazine reviews, such as Janet Staiger's Interpreting Films: Studies in the Historical Reception of American Cinema (Staiger, 1992). This essay has been haunted by the prospect that it should be properly called 'newspaper studies'. Reviewers of An American Family, if not viewers, were constrained not only by the original episodes but especially by the written press materials that accompanied them.

At the time the first reviews appeared, episodes nine, ten, eleven, and twelve were still in the editing stage. Many early reviews were written on the basis of the press portfolio, a screening of several episodes, particularly episode one, and, in some cases, conversations with the production team. The emphasis on the first episode was significant because it was the most didactic, and least representative, of all the shows, making use of a flashback structure, parallel editing, on-camera narration, and a 'day in the life' approach rather than the basic chronology of the rest of the series (Ruoff, 1992, pp. 230-1). In particular, the first show primed viewers to read all the subsequent episodes for signs of the imminent decline of Pat and Bill Loud's marriage.

Following the work of Liebes and Katz in The Export of Meaning: Cross Cultural Readings of Dallas, this essay divides the responses of reviewers into categories of referential and critical readings (Liebes, 1990, p. 100). All documentaries invite referential readings and they were by far the most common responses to the series. Most reviewers speculated at length about the actual Loud family, lending credibility to Jay Ruby's thesis that viewers of documentaries misread the representation for reality itself (Ruby, 1977), though referential readings were also predominant in the reception of Dallas (Liebes, 1990, p. 111). A comment on An American Family in Newsweek was typical, 'At school, at home, at work and at play, these nice-looking people act like affluent zombies. The shopping carts overflow, but their minds are empty' (Alexander, 1973). For Shana Alexander, the documentary provided not only a window into the Louds' ranch house, but also a view into their innermost thoughts, or lack thereof.

Referential Readings

Anne Roiphe's nine-page article in the New York Times Magazine provided the most sustained referential reading of An American Family; her review was actually about


the Louds, hardly about the series at all. Of Mr. Loud's extramarital affairs, Roiphe speculated, 'Why the infidelities? The camera doesn't tell us, but we can guess' (Roiphe, 1973a). Referential readers, regardless of whether they believed the family was representative or not, attacked the Louds for all kinds of personal shortcomings. In some instances, criticisms of the family members reached absurd proportions, as in Roiphe's characterization of the fifteen-year-old daughter, 'Delilah, like the rest of the Louds, never grieved for the migrant workers, the lettuce pickers, the war dead; never thought of philosophy or poetry, was not obsessed by adolescent idealism, did not seem undone by dark moods in which she pondered the meaning of life and death' (Roiphe, 1973a). Although semiologist Sol Worth pointed out that 'pictures can't say ain't' (Worth, 1981, p. 173), Roiphe based her conjectures about Delilah entirely on the absence of certain scenes in An American Family. Roiphe was most critical of Lance, whom she referred to as an 'evil flower', an 'electric eel', and a 'Goyaesque emotional dwarf' (Roiphe, 1973a).

Roiphe's denunciations did not go unanswered; a letter to the New York Times Magazine from the president of the Gay Activists Alliance supported Lance and his family (Voeller, 1973). As O'Connor recently noted, Roiphe's article survives primarily as an example of homophobia (O'Connor, 1988). Roiphe's criticisms of the family members epitomized the responses of many reviewers who found the Louds' lifestyle objectionable. Roiphe's remarkable essay ended with the nostalgic wish that the country could 'return to an earlier America when society surrounded its members with a tight sense of belonging' (Roiphe, 1973a), a feeling which Roiphe found, ironically, in the family drama The Waltons, which she reviewed nine months later in the same magazine (Roiphe, 1973b).

The significance of the real was paramount, even for critics who compared the series to fictional works. The production secretary underlined this dimension of the reception, 'I think when one watched An American Family one knew that somewhere in Santa Barbara they were watching the same thing' (Ruoff, 1989). The notion of liveness, an important dimension of television viewing, cropped up in many of the reviews. These reviewers failed to acknowledge any distinctions between representation and reality. An article in Newsweek, 'The Divorce of the Year', announced, 'This week, in the presence of 10 million Americans, Pat Loud will tell her husband of twenty years to move out of their house in Santa Barbara, Calif.' (Newsweek, 1973c). By the time episode nine was aired, in which this scene occurred, Pat and Bill Loud had already been divorced for six months. The review, like many others, collapsed the difference between story time and broadcast time, implying that viewers saw the events not as they happened, but as they were happening. Similarly, a reviewer in Commonweal asked, 'What is it like to live on television?' (Murray, 1973), while the New York Times entitled its first review, 'An American Family Lives Its Life on TV' (Harrington, 1973). Clearly, by 1973, reviewers associated television not only with the real world but especially with the simultaneity of the live broadcast.


A further indication of the role of television in the reception concerned the relationship between entertainment, reality, and broadcasting. Some critics saw the Louds' willingness to share their private lives in a television series as an indication of a therapeutic society that thrived on the 'compulsion to confess' (Time, 1973b), an indication of the weakening of America's moral fiber. (Years later, writing in the New Republic, Stanley Kauffmann counted this compulsion as the main sociological insight of the series (Kauffmann, 1979).) With this in mind, reviewers attacked the Louds for simply taking part in the documentary (The Nation, 1973). The accusation of exhibitionism, on the part of the Louds, and invasion of privacy, on the part of the producers, led to a denunciation of television in American life. Critics saw the celebrity of the Louds, famous for having their lives televised, as a sign of a society increasingly based on spectacle (Woods, 1973). Indeed, some reviewers saw the Louds as a family created by the media. Sara Sanborn contended in Commentary, 'Lance seems to have been literally brought to life by television; it is hard to believe that he exists when no one is watching' (Sanborn, 1973a).

Critical misgivings about, and hostility towards, television led some reviewers to speculate about the medium swallowing the real, anticipating post-modernist theories, 'A delightful only-in-America scenario presents itself: will the Louds eventually appear on TV to promote the book they'll write about having been on TV?' (Woods, 1973). Critics envisioned various paranoid scenarios about the encroachment of television in everyday life, 'TV critics will become involved in broadcast debates with the Louds and will thus themselves become participants in the drama. Margaret Mead herself may be sucked in, explaining her anthropological interpretations to Pat and Bill on TV and then, as they react to her theories, becoming inexorably a part of what she is analyzing' (Murray, 1973). To other reviewers, the only possible response was parody. In the Chicago Tribune, Jay Sharbutt described a new series about the Scrimshaw family of Florida, 'We'll start filming the family just as soon as Everett Jr. gives my documentary crew its camera back and apologizes for throttling the producer' (1973). These referential readings saw television as a debased and dangerous substitute for the real world.

Referential readings were the most prevalent responses to An American Family. They were, of course, counseled by the press release and the advertisements that insisted that the series was 'actually lived by the Loud family of California' (New York Times, 18 January 1973), allowing Americans to see their lives reflected in 'the mirrors provided by these real people' (New York Times, 11 January 1973). Referential readers took the series as real, using it to talk about the Louds. (Others used it to talk about television engulfing reality.) Still today, during lectures about the series, someone always asks about what happened to Pat, Bill, Lance, Kevin, Grant, Delilah, and Michele. In 1988, at a Museum of Broadcasting symposium devoted to the documentary, Grant Loud tried to stem the tide of curiosity about the family--and to counsel a critical read-


ing--shouting, 'An American Family is not about us; it's about you. I don't want to tell you about what we're doing in our lives today'.

Critical Readings

Reviews frequently combined referential and critical frames. Critical readings paid particular attention to the conventions of television, the message of the programme, and the making of the series (Liebes, 1990, p. 115). Looking for generic comparisons, reviewers cast about for categories to describe adequately the twelve-part series. Occasional reviewers referred to An American Family, as a 'home movie' (Sharbutt, 1973; Newsweek, 1973c), usually as a way of discrediting the documentary. Several critics commented that the Louds seemed to step right out of the idealized world of the television commercial (Alexander, 1973; Sanborn, 1973a; O'Connor, 1973c). Similarly, Erica Brown noted in Vogue that 'The manufacturer of Barbie dolls could not have typecast a family better' (Brown, 1973). For these critics, the Louds possessed the surface characteristics of commercial, fabricated, representations of American life.

Few reviewers compared the series to sociological studies of the family, although the press release quoted Margaret Mead and referred to the work of Oscar Lewis (WNET, 1973b). Reviewers did use the series as a springboard to discuss the family in general (Newsweek, 1973b). Time magazine solicited comments about An American Family from a psychotherapist, a psychologist, a psychiatrist, and two sociologists (1973b). A roundtable discussion broadcast by WNET on 5 April, in the same weekly time slot as the series, aired the opinions of Margaret Mead and a panel of academic experts of literature, drama, history, psychiatry, and anthropology.

Virtually the only tradition the series was not compared to was, finally, documentary. The press release referred to the series as a documentary, but failed to provide other examples of the form, other than noting that An American Family was not a 'survey type of documentary' (WNET, 1973b). Taking their cues from the press packet, most of the reviewers did not mention other documentaries. Almost none cited the history of observational cinema; this was the first time the style had reached a mass audience. Writers who looked for non-fictional comparisons mentioned such works as The Selling of the Pentagon (O'Connor, 1973c), Sixty Minutes (Miller, 1973), But What If the Dream Comes True (Blake, 1973), and Titicut Follies (Menaker, 1973). A reviewer in the Chicago Tribune suggested that the series was 'a sort of non-fiction novel' (1973a).

Not surprisingly, reviewers in film magazines mentioned documentary precedents with greater frequency. Writing in Media and Methods, Robert Geller cited the work of Wiseman, Arthur Barron, Allan King, and the Maysles brothers (Geller, 1973). The narrative basis of the series, combined with a lack of familiarity with observational cinema, led most critics to other forms. Stephanie Harrington commented in the New York Times that, 'Unlike most documentaries, An American Family does not proceed from a premise and then


marshal the evidence to dramatize that premise' (Harrington, 1973). For many critics, then, the series was not a documentary, but rather a non-fiction soap opera or a non-fiction situation comedy.

Incipient critical readings believed that the series had as much in common with fictional forms as with the documentary tradition. For many reviewers, the interest of An American Family came from the novelty of portraying the intimate life of an actual family in serial form, 'You find yourself sticking with the Louds with the same compulsion that draws you back day after day to your favorite soap opera. The tension is heightened by the realization that you are identifying, not with a fictitious character, but a flesh and blood person who is responding to personal problems of the kind you yourself might face' (Harrington, 1973). Harrington evoked referential and critical frames, even suggesting that the particular attraction of the series lay in the combination of these readings. Many reviewers likened the series to soap opera, on the basis of the form, serial narrative, and of the content, intimate personal relationships. As Robert Allen pointed out in Speaking of Soap Operas, many critics considered soap opera a low form of melodramatic entertainment, targeted primarily at a female audience (Allen, 1985). Like soap operas, An American Family left room for active involvement of spectators through multiple stories drawn out through multiple episodes. In between episodes, viewers had time to speculate with friends about the character developments to come. The serial form, coupled with the actuality material, fostered an unusually intense relationship between viewers and characters. The Louds received substantial amounts of mail from fans, like the fictional characters on daytime serials (Intintoli, 1984).

Throughout their articles, critics compared the series to a variety of mostly fictional television shows, movies, novels, and plays, including The Waltons, The Forsyte Saga, Secret Storm, Father Knows Best, The Partridge Family, My Three Sons, The Brady Bunch, Ozzie and Harriet, Marty, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Godfather, Scenes From a Marriage, A Doll's House, and Death of A Salesman. Often critics invoked these fictional intertexts, especially the situation comedies, for contrast, i.e., 'no Ozzie and Harriet confection' (Time, 1973b), 'a lot more fun than Peyton Place' (Rock, 1973), 'scarcely the Forsyte Saga it is billed to be' (Alexander, 1973), and 'Maybe it's better to be a Corleone than a Loud' (Roiphe, 1973a). For many reviewers, An American Family offered a corrective to idealized representations of family life on television, 'the reality of the Louds has no connection with the fantasy of The Brady Bunch' (O'Connor, 1973c). These critical readings frequently equated documentary with truth and fiction with falsehood.

Although reviewers focused obsessively on the personalities of the family members, some intuited that the Louds stood for more than themselves, as in Alexander's comment that the series was a 'genuine American tragedy' (Alexander, 1973). Critical readings recognized that the series had a message and a point of view beyond simply showing family life. For example, short plot summaries in TV Guide attributed authorship to the producer rather than to reality, 'Producer Craig Gilbert shows the communications gap between [Pat and Lance] by focusing on their uneasy small talk, telling glances and painful silences' (1973b) and 'Producer Craig Gilbert hints how the family's summer separation may have deeper roots' (1973c). Critical readers took An American Family as a statement about contemporary society, supporting Bill Nichols' claim that documentaries are films that make arguments (Nichols, 1991).


In thematic terms, reviewers asserted the series was 'a scathing commentary on the American domestic dream' (Newsweek, 1973a), 'a statement about the values of marriage and family' (Rock, 1973), and 'the American Dream turned nightmare' (America, 1973). (Clearly, reviewers did not see the divorce as a positive step towards ending an unhappy marriage, nor as a message, for example, of liberation.) The series documented 'the erosion of traditional values' (O'Connor, 1973b), 'the generation gap' (Woods, 1973), the inability 'to communicate' (Alexander, 1973), spiritual emptiness (Donohue, 1973), 'conspicuous consumption' (Menaker, 1973), the disappearance, according to anthropologist Gloria Levitas, of 'a central core of belief' (Roiphe, 1973a), while the Loud family was 'a symbol of disintegration and purposelessness in American life' (McCarthy, 1973). A viewer who wrote to the editor of the New York Times Magazine quoted Thomas Jefferson to buttress her interpretation of the series, 'Material abundance without character is the surest way to destruction' (Aruffo, 1973). The dominant interpretation of the series was that it chronicled the breakdown of American culture; the centre, Robert Geller noted, quoting Didion quoting Yeats, will not 'hold' (Geller, 1973).

There were critics who agreed that An American Family made an argument about the demise of Western civilization, but who questioned the evidence the series provided to support this contention. Sociologists were quick to note that the Louds constituted a 'Sample of One', as an article in Time asserted (1973b). Reviewers argued that the Louds were not statistically representative nor could any one family adequately portray the diversity of American family life (The Nation, 1973). Gilbert had tried to circumvent this line of criticism by noting in the press release that the Louds were 'neither typical nor average' (WNET, 1973b). In an intriguing twist, critics argued that participating in the series somehow placed the Louds outside the mainstream of American life. Sociologist Irving Louis Horowitz claimed that 'The very act of being filmed for public television makes the Louds untypical' (Time, 1973b). Newsweek paraphrased Horowitz' reasoning for the conclusion to its cover story on the documentary, 'The minute Craig Gilbert's cameras began to roll in May 1971, the Loud family became anything but typical' (1973c). Horowitz' contention was tautological: any family that appeared in the series would automatically have been excluded from the sample of representative families, by dint of having participated in the documentary.

The Making of the Series

Many reviews discussed the making of the series: the duration of the shoot, the number of hours recorded, the rapport with the family, the motivations of the producers and the Louds, and the influence of the camera. Some were devoted entirely to providing the backstage details of the production, such as 'Looking Thru the Lens at One Man's Family' (Kramer, 1973a). In 'Finding-and Filming--an American Family' in the Los Angeles Times, Gilbert admitted that Ross MacDonald's detective novel, The Underground Man, described ''with absolute accuracy the kind of family [he] was looking for'' (Smith, 1973), a detail not provided in the press packet. An entire episode of The Dick Cavett Show explored the making of the documentary. As a result, O'Connor complained in the New York Times that 'The content of An


American Family slowly began sinking into a mindless ooze about the making of An American Family' (O'Connor, 1973c). At first, Gilbert maintained that the series had no point of view, stating in the press release, 'I didn't set out to prove anything' (WNET, 1973b). Only during the ensuing controversy did Gilbert make more explicit claims, 'We were using the film to say something about this country and what it means to be a man and a woman. The divorce was simply used as a dramatic device' (Newsweek, 1973c). About the Louds, Gilbert noted, 'They communicate. But they don't communicate about the bad stuff. That's the way we are as a country, and that's what the series is about. We can't ever admit that we have made a mistake' (Time, 1973b). Critical readers seemed disappointed to discover that producer Gilbert had a point of view (Sanborn, 1973a; McCarthy, 1973; Murray, 1973).

Reviews accentuated the backstage details that the series itself kept in the shadows. Melinda Ward wrote in Film Comment, 'The audience knows, especially after all the publicity, how long the crew was there, how many hours were shot, etc.' (Ward, 1973b). Commentary noted, 'As all the world must know by now, a production crew from WNET in New York spent two years and over $1,000,000, plus a prodigious amount of talent and energy pursuing the William C. Loud family through better and worse' (Sanborn, 1973a). Many believed that the production of the series held clues as to its legitimacy as a representation (Staiger, 1992, p. 8). The emphasis reviewers placed on the making of the series derived from referential expectations but ultimately led to critical frameworks. Recognizing that the documentary was produced represented the beginning of a critical reading (Liebes, 1990, p. 115). An American Family may best be remembered as the non-fiction series haunted by the presence of the camera, an unwittingly reflexive work, even though Gilbert wanted to make 'a series of films about the Louds and not about how the Louds interrelated with a film crew from NET' (Gilbert, 1982, p. 34).

Rare is the review that did not speculate about the influence of the camera on the family, exemplified by a comment from America, 'As this journal of deterioration unfolds, one must ask continually: 'Might it have been otherwise if there were no camera and no microphone?'' (1973). Cultural critics like Benjamin DeMott pointed out that the series offered only 'the truth of how people behave in front of a camera' (Donohue, 1973). One review of An American Family pointedly asked 'Can a Documentary Be Made of Real Life?' (Hayakawa, 1973). The reviewer's response to his own question was 'no', putting him in the company of Brian Winston and other critics of the 'documentary illusion' (Winston, forthcoming). Reviewers had a hard time believing that family members could learn to act naturally under these artificial circumstances. In anticipation of this issue, the press portfolio addressed this vexing problem,

It is undeniable that the presence of the camera affected the family. Although the production crew went about their business as unobtrusively as possible, they were there. In fact, the Louds recognized that it might be difficult, at first, to behave normally


in front of the camera. As it turned out, with seven individuals--each with the usual assortment of friends and acquaintances--wandering in and out of the house, the camera was less of a presence than it might have been in a smaller household. If reactions were modified because of the camera, those reactions are still valid. Since there were no roles assigned to each member, each individual's response expressed what was felt about himself or herself, which was, of course, one of the basic goals of the project (WNET, 1973a).

The press release raised this issue to dismiss it, a tactic that clearly backfired. Indeed, the emphasis on the making of the series in reviews was another reflection of the centrality of the press portfolio in the reception of An American Family.

Reviewers who called attention to the presence of the camera usually dismissed the idea of observational cinema, rather than discussing specific examples from the series. To buttress their arguments, critics, writing for such publications as Harper's, The Nation, and New Republic, paraphrased Werner Heisenberg's Principle of Indeterminacy to challenge the notion of simple observation--'the process of conducting certain kinds of experiments alters the very properties under investigation' (Menaker, 1973), 'intervention in the life of a social microcosm significantly changes the phenomena under observation' (The Nation, 1973), 'the observer is never wholly independent of the observed' (Woods, 1973)--claiming that 'the medium has created the phenomenon it now purports to study' (Sanborn, 1973a). Others, such as Dick Cavett and S. I. Hayakawa, cited their own experiences being filmed as proof of the intrusiveness of the camera (Hayakawa, 1973).

These reviewers, by and large, ignored comments from the Louds that contradicted their arguments. Furthermore, few critics looked at the series itself to find evidence to support their claims, although there were many ways of inferring the presence of the crew. In episode ten, after an argument with Pat, Grant turned to the camera for support; 'Nothing like a sympathetic mother!', he remarked with a grin. Every episode contained dozens of asides to the camera, subdued references to the presence of an internal audience, self-conscious demonstrations to the crew, and other unintentionally reflexive gestures. (In any case, the influence of the camera on the family was minuscule compared to the influence of the broadcast of An American Family and the celebrity it brought them.)

Gilbert believed the cameras would inhibit the Louds' actions for a limited time until the family grew accustomed to the presence of the crew. This was the rationale for the extremely long shooting period. Comments from the family and crew confirmed this intuition, as when Mrs. Loud noted that she gradually accepted the camera's presence, ''After some months the crew was like family', explains Pat. 'I acted as if they were part of us. I just forgot about the camera'' (Time, 1973b). Lance recalled the same process, 'It wasn't like letting a camera person and sound person in to film us; it's just that Susan and Alan were in the room' (Ruoff, 1990). The Raymonds developed filming techniques to minimize their impact on the family (Raymond, 1973, 1973a). Mr. Loud recalled the most controversial scene in which his wife asked him to move out of the house, ''When Patty told me about the divorce, I could have said, 'Get this


camera crew out of here.' But we had gotten used to them'' (Newsweek, 1973c). Gilbert asked the Louds to behave 'as if' the camera were not there, an arrangement with which they, according to their personalities and the situation, complied (Loud, 1974, p. 119-120). Gilbert asked the audience to watch the series 'as if' the camera were not there; large segments of the viewing public refused this gambit.

In their discussions of the making of the series, most critics focused on the production stage rather than on post-production, under-emphasizing the function and importance of editing. Editing came under scrutiny primarily because this was the stage of the production that the Louds believed manipulated the story of the family. For some critics, the simple fact that the series was edited implied manipulation. They considered editing not as a process of making meaning but rather as means of possible distortion and falsification (Woods, 1973; Donohue, 1973; Hayakawa, 1973; Sanborn, 1973a). In this sense, reviewers faulted the documentary for literally failing to reproduce reality, a referential standard borrowed for a critical reading.

More thoughtful reviewers, those who had more time and more space to develop their ideas, called attention to the principles of selection of An American Family. An ability to recognize the series as a construction often engendered nagging doubts about its status as non-fiction. Some reviewers had difficulty reconciling the strong narrative emphasis of the actuality material, as if documentary were, by definition, a non-narrative form. The Saturday Review of the Arts critic noted that the 'most striking narrative moments seem to conspire against seeing the film as true-to-life', a comment that suggested tightly organized story structures must be fictional (Gaines, 1973). Clearly, the narrative drive of the series grated against the realism of the handheld camera and direct sound. A reviewer in Newsweek speculated that 'their impromptu remarks seem improbably articulate, as though they had been scripted ahead of time' (1973c). Use of continuity techniques, suspense, and foreshadowing implied a fictional basis to the series. One reviewer found it implausible that a tarot-card reader in episode two accurately hinted at Pat's coming separation from Bill, neglecting to mention that the series was edited with the divorce in mind (Gaines, 1973). The editor, looking over seven months of footage, had the power the tarot-card reader lacked, to accurately predict the future.

The narrative thrust of An American Family influenced its reception in other ways. Stories require change from one state of affairs to another. The parents' separation provided the momentum necessary for narrative development; some critics attributed this change to the presence of the camera. Pat, for her part, maintained that she and Bill stayed together longer than they otherwise would have because of the filming (Loud, 1974, p. 115). For similar reasons, reviewers typically stated that Lance 'came out' during the filming, attributing Lance's sexuality to narrative progression and, again, the influence of the camera. Lance, however, made clear in statements to the press that he was gay before, during, and after An American Family. He mentioned on WLS-TV's Kennedy and Co., 'The sexual preference has always been there. When I went thru puberty, I wanted to have sex with boys' (Petersen, 1973b).


Lance didn't come out on American television; American television came out of the closet through An American Family.

The Louds Strike Back

The Louds themselves eventually became reviewers and critics of the series, influencing its reception, an uncommon occurrence for a documentary and a seeming impossibility for a fictional work. During the editing, the Louds viewed and gave their approval, both tacitly and explicitly, of the twelve episodes (Loud, 1974, p. 124). Before the broadcast, their responses to An American Family were positive. Pat Loud told Vogue that ''Divorce happens to so many people that I really don't mind having it televised'' (Brown, 1973). Bill Loud mentioned to a journalist from Newsweek that 'he thought the series would make them look like the 'West Coast Kennedys'' (1973a). Shocked by the hostility of so many of the reviews, the Louds entered the debate shortly after the broadcast of the first episodes. They took exception to the advertising campaign for the series, arguing that it sensationalized their lives for entertainment purposes. When Pat Loud complained to Craig Gilbert about the publicity for An American Family, he remarked that these aspects of promotion were out of his control and not normally the responsibility of a producer at WNET (Loud, 1974, p. 142). The family members felt antagonized by the publicity for the series and were scandalized by the critical reception of the documentary.

Throughout the controversy, the Louds tried to direct attention towards the point of view of the series, especially the editing. They never denied having said and done the things that appear in An American Family, as occurred, for example, with some of the people who appeared in Hearts and Minds (Davis, 1973). Although they claimed that the series misrepresented their lives, they never implied that events were staged or that they were encouraged to do certain actions by the producers, accusations that were leveled against Jeff Kreines and Joel DeMott, the makers of Seventeen (Hoover, 1992, p. 111). Nor did the Louds maintain that they were performing in a spurious manner or that the camera radically transformed their behavior. They simply asserted that the editors had a cynical view of humanity. Responding to critics who harped on the family's inability to communicate, Pat Loud accused Gilbert and the editors of having ''left out all the joyous, happy hours of communication and fun'' (Time, 1973a). Bill Loud accused the editors of being New York radicals opposed to the traditional family and added, on The Dick Cavett Show, that if the Louds had been able to edit the series they ''would have done more of a Laugh-In type of thing''. (Mr. Loud evidently saw greater possibilities for humor and comedy in the footage than the producers did.)

Although the Louds were referential readers of An American Family, they disagreed with reviewers about the sources of bias. They tried to put out improved referential images of the family. The premise of their appearance on the 20 February 1973 episode of The Dick Cavett Show was to give viewers a chance to meet the real Louds, not mediated by the series, as if the setting of the television talk show were more believable than the scenes in An American Family. During the talk show, the Louds had the oppor-


tunity to state their position that they had 'lost their dignity' as a result of actions taken by WNET, the station's publicity agents, Gilbert, and the editors of the series. Similarly, the Chicago Tribune published interviews with the family members in an article entitled, 'Real-life Louds recall their days as TV's Louds', implying that television, unlike newspapers and magazines, packages reality (1973c). Subsequent representations of the family in the media promised glimpses of the Louds themselves, ironically standing the rhetorical claim of the observational style on its head. As Jeanne Hall has shown, the early observational films of Drew Associates promised greater access to the real and questioned the verisimilitude of 'more traditional forms of documentary' (Hall, 1990, p. 21).

Eventually, the members of the Loud family swallowed the critics' appraisals of the series, just as the reviewers followed the lead of the press releases. In the Chicago Tribune, Bill Loud parroted the terms offered up by a reviewer to characterize his family, ''We had a great family, really great people, a lot of ambitious people, and the children looked like affluent zombies looking into a pit'' (Petersen, 1973a). They accepted the designation of the genre of soap opera, as Mr. Loud's comments testified: ''We let Gilbert and his crew into our house to do a documentary, and they produced a second-rate soap opera'' (Time, 1973b). Since critics viewed soap opera as a low form of entertainment, broadcast by an already discredited medium, Mr. Loud condemned An American Family by association.


The celebrity of the Louds continued well beyond the second broadcast in the summer of 1973. Pat Loud: A Woman's Story appeared in March 1974, one year after the broadcast of the series and, again, in paperback several months later. The marketing of the autobiography capitalized on issues related to single motherhood, divorce, sexual liberation, and the women's movement. Sales figures for the book industry are notoriously hard to obtain, but Alan Raymond has estimated that over a hundred thousand copies of the book were sold (Ruoff, 1993). An American Family vaulted Pat Loud to the status of every woman, whose tale spoke to just about everyone, as the book jacket proclaimed, 'Whether you're single, married or divorced--Pat Loud's story will touch your life'. During the promotion of her book, she claimed to speak for the anonymous American wife and mother, 'Every housewife I know has a story they are dying to tell but never do' (Kilday, 1974). Fulfilling Crawford Woods' prediction, Pat Loud did appear on television to promote the book she wrote about appearing on television.

The chapters that detailed the Louds' participation in An American Family offered the most remarkable testimony by the subject of a documentary in the history of the medium (Loud, 1974, pp. 79-163). Pat dedicated most of her book to answering the critics, especially the perpetual question of why the family agreed to take part in such an unusual experiment in non-fiction television. Most viewers, seeing only the result of that pact on their home screens, could not imagine the small steps that led to it. The Louds' biggest fault, to many reviewers, was simply the foolishness of participating in the project (The Nation, 1973; Time, 1973b).


Presumably, any normal American family would have sent Gilbert packing. 'Why We Did It' explained for the inquiring minds who wanted to know, 'There seem to be three groups of people--the ones like Craig, and Abigail McCarthy in The Atlantic Monthly, and I think me, who think anybody would have done it--the ones who think Californians would do it because they're exhibitionists and Easterners wouldn't because they're paranoid--and the ones who think anybody who would do it has got to be nuts, like Organized Psychiatry' (Loud, 1974, p. 83-4).

Certain details in the autobiography suggested ways in which Mrs. Loud came to view her life according to the commentary the series generated. For example, the story of the family's arrival in Santa Barbara is entitled 'The American Dream' (Loud, 1974, pp. 60-79). The first chapter, 'Aftershock--Summer of '73', opened with comments that picked up where the series ended, 'I still live in the house, but the pool is empty now', an off-the-cuff reference to Roiphe's designation of the Louds' swimming pool as a 'fetid swamp' (Roiphe, 1973a). This conspiracy of familiarity with the reader continued with the disclosure of intimate details of their ongoing lives. The book relied entirely on the notoriety of the television series, and Pat Loud's subsequent celebrity, as its raison d'être, assuming familiarity with 'TV's first real family'.

Celebrity was not the inevitable result of being the subject of An American Family. To my knowledge, no one has ever gone on to become a celebrity from appearing in a film by Wiseman, although he has made over twenty-five feature length documentaries. Although his films have been seen widely and often have engendered bitter controversy--especially Titicut Follies, High School, and Primate--they portrayed individuals in their social roles, not as personalities. Wiseman was explicit about his intent, 'I think the star of each film is the institution' (Mamber, 1974, p. 240-1).

An American Family was based largely on the different personalities of the family members and their daily activities, and the serial structure encouraged viewer identification with the Louds over a span of several months. The WNET press packet facilitated this identification with individual characters through capsule biographies, 'Fashionably dressed and casual in appearance, Pat Loud is an attractive brunette who looks younger than her 45 years' (WNET, 1973d). An American Family offered character-centered narrative drama to an audience well acquainted with the form (Bordwell, 1985, p. 13) A comment from The Atlantic best expressed this audience response, 'Their impact as individuals is what lingers in the viewer's memory' (McCarthy, 1973). In her auto-


biography, Pat Loud mentioned 'boxes and boxes of letters' sent by viewers to the family (Loud, 1974, p. 8). Letter writers were referential readers, too.

Some commentators saw a split between newspaper and magazine reviewers, primarily representative of the East Coast intelligentsia, and ordinary viewers, whose responses to the family were not so hostile (Ruoff, 1989). Most, though not all, of the mail the Louds received was sympathetic towards their family. Brief citations of the letters in Pat Loud: A Woman's Story hinted at some differences between the ways in which ordinary viewers responded to the series and the reactions of professional critics. Letter writers did not relate An American Family to other works of art, such as plays and books, as reviewers often did. Ordinary viewers tended to compare their own personal experiences to those of the Louds. Pat summarized the two thousand letters the family received, 'Most of them said, We watched the series, we have a family like yours; don't pay any attention to the critics, hang tough' (Loud, 1974, p. 158).

Most viewers wrote to the family after their first appearance on The Dick Cavett Show. These letters didn't really represent a reaction to An American Family itself so much as to the Louds subsequent appearances in the media. Some wrote to assure Pat of her convictions, 'Please try not to be upset by the obtuseness of certain critics & viewers . . . it really angers me that you are being criticized for the crimes of your honesty and openness' (Loud, 1974, p. 156). Many women identified strongly with Pat as a mother, 'Your private feelings for Lance are also nobody's damn business. Forsaking your child because he is not what you dreamed he would be is unthinkable. Many women admire you enormously on this point alone' (Loud, 1974, p. 157). Others wanted to discuss their own problems and how watching the series illuminated them, 'One of the things women have always done was deprive themselves all their lives 'for the sake of their family' and to the detriment of themselves' (Loud, 1974, p. 156). Unlike the professional critics, these writers admitted their own faults, 'I have also gotten drunk and regretted my words later. I bet 95 percent of the audience has, too' (Loud, 1974, p. 158). Some of the writers seemingly fulfilled Gilbert's hope that the series would be watched as a tool for self-analysis, 'If I delve emotionally into your life it is more to understand myself and those around me than to criticize you' (Loud, 1974, p. 158-9). Still others offered advice, and the benefits of their own experiences, 'Stay and keep the family . . . most men will come home and rock after a few flings' (Loud, 1974, p. 157).

A letter to the editor of Commentary referred to An American Family as 'essentially a woman-oriented series' (Conn, 1973), providing some explanation for the nature of the letters Pat Loud received, many of which expressed solidarity with her as a woman. Apart from the fact that reviewers noted that Pat was the lead character in the series, that An American Family was favorably and sympathetically reviewed in Ms. and Vogue, and that it was, mostly disparagingly, compared with soap operas, there were no other references to the documentary as a woman's picture. Interestingly, many of the reviewers of the series--including those most


influential--were writers such as Shana Alexander, Sara Sanborn, Abigail McCarthy, Anne Roiphe, and Stephanie Harrington.

Bill Loud, for his part, received a number of marriage proposals in the mail, as he mentioned on The Dick Cavett Show, including a letter from a woman in Georgia who wrote, ''If she doesn't want you, I do'' (Loud, 1974, p. 155). Lance, too, received many letters in the mail, 'I got three Bibles from different religious factions; of course, they just burst into flames the second I opened the pages. And I got a lot of letters from gay guys, gay suburban kids, who thanked me for being a voice of outrage in a bland fucking normal middle-class world' (Ruoff, 1990). Writing in Esquire magazine in November 1987, Frank Rich singled out Lance's television appearance as one of the defining images of a period Rich referred to as 'The Gay Decade' (Rich, 1987). Pat was not the only member of the family to remain in the limelight after the series had faded from the television screen. The Loud children performed several songs on a televised fundraising event for PBS, which auctioned 'A weekend with the Louds' (Loud, 1974, p. 11). Meanwhile, Lance formed the Mumps, a punk rock group that played original music in clubs in New York throughout the 1970s. Rock and Roll comme çi, Rock and Roll comme ça was their biggest hit.

Intertextuality Forever

In 1991, Santa Barbara Magazine featured Pat and Lance Loud on the cover for an article on An American Family twenty years later. Forevermore, the Louds would be grist for the entertainment mill. Stand-up comedian Albert Brooks' Real Life (1979) mercilessly caricatured many of the popular conceptions of An American Family, opening with a crawl that promised to extend original research undertaken by Margaret Mead in 1973. A more serious venture, but equally entertaining, Susan and Alan Raymond's An American Family Revisited: The Louds Ten Years Later (1983) recounted the story of the documentary, focusing on the image of the family as it was packaged, criticized, and manufactured by the media.

On The Dick Cavett Show Craig Gilbert admitted, against his own inclinations, that a producer cannot control the reception of his work. An American Family amply illustrates this point. The novel aspects of the series provoked a wide variety of responses.


Margaret Mead anticipated this generic confusion in her article in TV Guide, 'I do not think An American Family should be called a documentary. I think we need a new name for it, a name that would contrast it not only with fiction, but with what we have been exposed to up until now on TV' (Mead, 1973).

Through the publicity campaign, WNET set the agenda for responses to the program. Reviewers mostly read the series referentially, criticizing the Loud family. As Grant pointed out, "Any jerk with a pencil or a typewriter, who had the audacity to write about us, sat in judgment of these people that he had never met" (Raymond, 1983). If this reception study provides a definition of documentary, it may be films when they are read referentially (Staiger, 1992, p. 96). Referential readers framed the series as if it were real while critical readers framed the series as if it were fiction. Mixing standards as the series mixed forms, critics compared An American Family primarily to fictional models of drama. Interpretive readers took the series as a moral tale about the decline of American culture. Others argued that intimate family life couldn't (and shouldn't) be recorded on film, preferring the trusted conventions of television talk shows and investigative reports. A vocal minority focused on the idea of the series; troubled by the premise of an observational cinema, many concluded that a documentary could not, in fact, be made of real life.


* For comments on earlier versions of this essay, I am indebted to Rick Altman, Glenn C. Altschuler, Dudley Andrew, Richard P. Horwitz, and Lauren Rabinovitz.


Newspapers and Magazines Articles

Alexander, S. (1973), 'The Silence of the Louds', Newsweek, 22 January, 81, p. 28.

Alter, D. (1973), Newsweek, 9 April, p. 7, (letter to the editor).

America (1973), 'An American Family', 10 February, 128, p. 111.

Aruffo, N. (1973), New York Times, 11 March, VI, p. 99, (letter to the editor).

Avery, H. (1973), New York Times, 11 March, VI, p. 99, (letter to the editor).

Blake, R. (1973), 'Families: Loud and Clear', America, 16 June, 128, p. 558.

Boeth, R. (1973), 'Connubial Blitz: It Was Ever Thus', Newsweek, 12 March, p. 56.

Brown, E. (1973), 'An American Family: Alive on the Screen', Vogue, January, 161, p. 68.

Carlin, S. (1973a), 'Seeing the Loud Family', Village Voice, 1 March, p. 15.

Carlin, S. (1973b), 'Louds Sink Slowly in the West', Village Voice, 5 April, p. 38.

Carlin, S. (1973c), 'Bye, Patty. Bye, Bill. Bye, Margaret', Village Voice, 12 April.

Chicago Tribune (1973a), 'An American Family', 11 January, 2, p. 9.

Chicago Tribune (1973b), 'And Another American Family', 3 March, 1, p. 17.

Chicago Tribune (1973c), 'Real-Life Louds Recall Their Days as TV's Louds', 22 April, 2, p. 2.

Christian Century (1974), 'Pat Loud: A Woman's Story', 10 April, 91, p. 402.

Christian Science Monitor (1974), 'Pat Loud: A Woman's Story', 27 March, p. F4.

Conley, R. B. (1973), Newsweek, 9 April, p. 7, (letter to the editor).

Conn, F. M. (1973), Commentary, October, 56, p. 16+, (letter to the editor).

De Fantini, B. (1973), Newsweek, 9 April, p. 7, (letter to the editor).

Donohue, J. (1973), 'Afterthoughts on An American Family', America, 28 April, 128, p. 390.

Ellman, N. L. (1973), New York Times, 11 March, VI, p. 99, (letter to the editor).

Fozard, J. L. (1973), Newsweek, 9 April, p. 6, (letter to the editor).

Fraser, J. T. (1973), New York Times, 11 March, VI, p. 99, (letter to the editor).

Friedman, J. (1973), 'Every Loud Has a Silver Lining', Village Voice, 18 January, p. 59.

Gaines, J. (1973), 'TV: The Decline and Fall of an American Family', Saturday Review of the Arts, January, pp. 47-8.

Geller, R. (1973), 'Coming of Age in Santa Barbara: An American Family', Media and Methods, March, 9, 7, pp. 50-2.

Hamernick, J. M. (1974), 'Pat Loud: A Woman's Story', Best Sellers, 1 May, 34, p. 71.

Harrington, S. (1973), 'An American Family Lives Its Life on TV', New York Times, 7 January, 19, p. 5.

Harrington, S. (1974), 'Of Loneliness and Publicity', The Nation, 14 September, 219, pp. 219-20.

Hayakawa, S. I. (1973), 'Can a Documentary Be Made of Real Life?', Chicago Tribune, 11 March, 2, p. 6.

Horowitz, C. (1973), 'Reality Check', People, 22 March, pp. 61-63.

Insley, D. A. (1973), Newsweek, 9 April, pp. 6-7, (letter to the editor).

Julian, J. (1973), New York Times, 11 March, II, 34, p. 5, (letter to the editor).

Kauffmann, S. (1979), 'Filming Filming', New Republic, April, p. 24.

Kilday, G. (1974), 'The Rerun Life of Pat Loud', Los Angeles Times, 2 May, IV, p. 1+.

Kirsch, R. (1974), 'Pat Loud: A Part of the Age of Exposure', Los Angeles Times, 28 April, p. 62.

Kleiman, B. (1973), Newsweek, 9 April, p. 6, (letter to the editor).

Kramer, C. (1973a), 'Looking Thru the Lens at One Man's Family', Chicago Tribune, 1 February, pp. 1-2.

Kramer, C. (1973b), 'How the Louds Have Used the Limelight', Chicago Tribune, 25 March, 2, p. 1.

Krueger, E. (1973), 'An American Family: An American Film', Film Comment, November/December, 9, pp. 16-19.

Loud, P. (1973), 'Some Second Thoughts From An American Family', Los Angeles Times, 4 March, VI, p. 7.

Lueloff, J. (1974), 'Materfamilias: Another Close (Off-Screen) Look at Pat Loud', Chicago Tribune, 24 March, 7, p. 3.

Mabley, J. (1973), 'There Goes the Case for Gay Liberation', Chicago Tribune, 25 March, 1, p. 4.

McCarthy, A. (1973), 'An American Family & The Family of Man', The Atlantic, July, 232, pp. 72-6.

McCaskey, M. (1973), Newsweek, 9 April, p. 7, (letter to the editor).

Mead, M. (1973), 'As Significant as the Invention of Drama or the Novel', TV Guide, 6 January, pp. A61-63.

Menaker, D. (1973), 'An American Family', Harper's, March, 246, pp. 98-9.

Miller, M. (1973), 'Dear Pat, Bill, Lance, Delilah, Grant, Kevin and Michele', Esquire, May, 79, pp. 239-40+.

Murray, M. (1973), 'The Louds of Santa Barbara', Commonweal, 23 March, 98, pp. 60-2.

The Nation (1973), 'Spy Drama', 5 March, 216, p. 293.

Newsweek (1973a), 'An American Family', 15 January, 81, p. 68.

Newsweek (1973b), 'The Broken Family: Divorce U.S. Style', 12 March, pp. 47-50+.

Newsweek (1973c), 'The Divorce of the Year', 12 March, pp. 48-49.

Nordheimer, J. (1974a), 'He Feels Like a Kid Again, But His 'American Family' Is In Ruins', New York Times, 1 March, 34, p. 1.

Nordheimer, J. (1974b), 'The Loud Family A Year Later: Scarred But Proud', Chicago Tribune, 18 March, 2, p. 1.

O'Connor, J. J. (1973a), 'TV: Arguments Over An American Family Are Smothering Its Contents', New York Times, 22 January, 60, p. 3.

O'Connor, J. J. (1973b), 'TV: An American Family Is a Provocative Series', New York Times, 23 January, 79, p. 1.

O'Connor, J. J. (1973c), 'Mr & Mrs. Loud, Meet the Bradys', New York Times, 4 March, p. 19-20.

Petersen, C. (1973a), 'Loud Family May Be Broken--But It's Not Broke, Chicago Tribune, 21 March, 1, p. 1+.

Petersen, C. (1973b), ''We Were Very Naive About A Lot'', Chicago Tribune, 22 March, 1, p. 1+.

Petersen, C. (1973c), ''We Haven't Changed', Says The Family's Father', Chicago Tribune, 23 March, 1A, p. 14.

Pfeffer, S. B. (1974), 'Pat Loud: A Woman's Story', Library Journal, 15 April, 99, p. 1123.

Raymond, A. and S. Raymond (1973a), 'Filming An American Family', Filmmaker's Newsletter, March, 6, pp. 19-21.

Raymond, A. and S. Raymond (1973b), 'An American Family', American Cinematographer, May, 54, pp. 590-1+.

Rich, F. (1987), 'The Gay Decade', Esquire, November.

Rock, G. (1973), 'All in a Real Family', Ms., February, 1, 8, pp. 22-3.

Roiphe, A. (1973a), 'An American Family: Things Are Keen But Could Be Keener', New York Times Magazine, 6, 18 February, pp. 8+.

Roiphe, A. (1973b), 'Ma and Pa and John Boy in Mythic America: The Waltons', New York Times Magazine, 6, 18 November, pp. 40+.

Rosenblatt, R. (1974), 'Residuals on An American Family', New Republic, 23 November, 171, pp. 20-4.

Rydwansky, K. C. (1973), Newsweek, 9 April, p. 7, (letter to the editor).

Sanborn, S. (1973a), 'An American Family', Commentary, May, 55, pp. 78-80.

Sanborn, S. (1973b), 'Sara Sanborn Writes', Commentary, October, 56, p. 16+, (reply to letter).

Sharbutt, J. (1973), 'The Drama of TV's Last Real (?) Family', Chicago Tribune, 27 February, 2, p. 9.

Smith, C. (1973), 'Finding--and Filming--an American Family', Los Angeles Times, 11 January, VI, p. 1+.

Terry, J. (1973), 'An American Family In Super-8', Filmmaker's Newsletter, March, 6, pp. 22-3.

Time (1973a), 'Ultimate Soap Opera', 22 January, 101, p. 36.

Time (1973b), 'Sample of One?', 26 February, 101, pp. 51-2.

TV Guide (1973a), 'An American Family', 6 January, p. A61.

TV Guide (1973b), 'An American Family', 13 January, p. A60.

TV Guide (1973c), 'An American Family', 3 February, p. A58.

Tunback-Hanson, M. (1974), 'En amerikansk familj', Chaplin, January, 16, 1, p. 17.

Voeller, B. (1973), New York Times Magazine, 4 March, p. 4, (letter to the editor).

Ward, M. (1973a), 'Pat Loud: An Interview', Film Comment, November/December, 9, pp. 20-3.

Ward, M. (1973b), 'The Making of An American Family', Film Comment, November/December, 9, pp. 24-31.

WNET (1973a), 'Background Production Information', pp. 1-5.

WNET (1973b), 'Press Release', pp. 1-3.

WNET (1973c), 'Episodes', pp. 1-2.

WNET (1973d), 'The Family', pp. 1-7.

WNET (1973e), 'Profile of the William C. Loud Family', p. 1.

Woods, C. (1973), 'The Louds', New Republic, 24 March, 168, p. 23.

Young, C. (1974), 'The Family', Sight and Sound, 43, 4, Winter, pp. 206-11.


Books and Articles

Allen, R. C. (1985), Speaking of Soap Operas, Chapel Hill.

Bennett, T. and J. Woollacott (1987), Bond and Beyond: The Political Career of a Popular Hero, London.

Bordwell, D., J. Staiger and K. Thompson (1985), The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960, New York.

Berger, B. and P. L. Berger (1983), The War Over the Family: Capturing the Middle Ground, New Jersey.

Colleyn, J. P. and C. de Clippel, eds. (1992), 'Demain, le Cinéma Ethnographique?', CinémAction, 64, 3ème Trimestre.

Crawford, P. I. and J. K. Simonsen, eds. (1992), Ethnographic Film, Aesthetics and Narrative Traditions, Aarhus.

Crawford, P. I. and D. Turton, eds. (1992a), Film as Ethnography, Manchester.

Feuer, Jane (1987), 'Genre', Allen, R. C. (ed.), Channels of Discourse: Television and Contemporary Criticism, Chapel Hill.

Gilbert, C. (1982), 'Reflections on An American Family', Studies in Visual Communication, 8, 1, Winter, pp. 24-54.

Hall, J. L. (1990), 'Refracting Reality: The Early Films of Robert Drew and Associates.' Ph.D. Dissertation. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin, Department of Communication Arts.

Hockings, P. and Y. Omori, eds. (1988), Cinematographic Theory and New Dimensions in Ethnographic Film, Osaka.

Intintoli, M. J. (1984), Taking Soaps Seriously: The World of 'Guiding Light', New York.

Liebes, T. and E. Katz (1990),The Export of Meaning: Cross Cultural Readings of Dallas, New York.

Loud, P. (1974), Pat Loud: A Woman's Story, New York.

Loizos, P. (1993), Innovation in Ethnographic Film: From Innocence to Self-Consciousness, 1955-1985, Manchester.

Mamber, S. (1974), Cinema Verite in America: Studies in Uncontrolled Documentary, Cambridge.

Melville, K. (1977), Marriage and Family Today, New York.

Morrisett, L. N. (1976), 'Rx for Public Broadcasting', Cater, D. and M. J. Nyhan (eds.), The Future of Public Broadcasting, New York, pp. 163-184.

Newcomb, H. and R. S. Alley (1983), The Producer's Medium: Conversations With Creators of American TV, New York.

Nichols, B. (1991), Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary, Bloomington.

O'Connor, J. J. (1988), 'And Then for Something Truly Different', WNET Thirteen Retrospective: Twenty-five Years on the Air, New York, pp. 55-62.

Reich, C. (1970), The Greening of America, New York.

Roszak, T. (1969), The Making of a Counterculture: Reflections on the Technological Society and Its Youthful Opposition, New York.

Ruby, J. (1977), 'The Image Mirrored: Reflexivity and the Documentary Film', The Journal of the University Film Association, 29, 4, pp. 3-13.

Ruoff, J. (1993), 'Interview with Alan Raymond'.

Ruoff, J. (1992), 'Conventions of Sound in Documentary', Altman, R. (ed.), Sound Theory/Sound Practice, New York, pp. 217-234.

Ruoff, J. (1992a), 'Interview with Craig Gilbert'.

Ruoff, J. (1991), 'Home Movies of the Avant-Garde: Jonas Mekas and the New York Art World', Cinema Journal, 30, 3, Spring, pp. 6-28.

Ruoff, J. (1990), 'Interview with Lance Loud'.

Ruoff, J. (1989), 'Interviews with Alice Carey, James Day, Jacqueline Donnet, Craig Gilbert, David Hanser, Susan Lester, Alan and Susan Raymond'.

Silverstone, R. (1985), Framing Science: The Making of a BBC Documentary, London.

Skolnick, A. (1991), Embattled Paradise: The American Family in an Age of Uncertainty, New York.

Staiger, J. (1992), Interpreting Films: Studies in the Historical Reception of American Cinema, Princeton.

Taylor, Ella (1989), Prime-Time Families: Television Culture in Postwar America, Berkeley.

Wilkinson, R. (1988), The Pursuit of American Character, New York.

Winston, Brian (forthcoming), Claiming the Real: The Griersonian Documentary and its Legitimations, London.

Worth, S. (1981 (1975)), 'Pictures Can't Say Ain't', Gross, L. (ed.), Studying Visual Communication, Philadelphia, pp. 162-184.


Films and Television Shows


1952-1966 The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. U.S.A., 30 minutes.

1969-1974 The Brady Bunch. U.S.A., 30 minutes.

1965-1973 The Dating Game. U.S.A., 30 minutes.

1968-1974 The Dick Cavett Show. U.S.A., 60 minutes.

1960-1972 My Three Sons. U.S.A., 30 minutes.

1970-1974 The Partridge Family. U.S.A., 30 minutes.

1964-1969 Peyton Place, U.S.A., 30 minutes.


1979 Real Life. U.S.A. Colour.


1978-1991 Dallas. U.S.A., 60 minutes.

1954-1963 Father Knows Best. U.S.A., 30 minutes.

1972-1981 The Waltons. U.S.A., 60 minutes.


1971 The Selling of the Pentagon. U.S.A. Colour, 52 minutes.

1973 Hearts and Minds. U.S.A. Colour and B & W, 110 minutes.


1922 Nanook of the North. U.S.A. B & W, 55 minutes.


1970 Gimme Shelter. U.S.A. Colour, 80 minutes.


1968-1973 Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. U.S.A., 60 minutes.


1969-70 The Forsyte Saga, Britain, 26 episodes.

1961-1978 The Mike Douglas Show. U.S.A., 90 minutes.


1983 An American Family Revisited: The Louds Ten Years Later. U.S.A. Colour, 60 minutes.


1967 Titicut Follies. U.S.A. B & W, 89 minutes.

1968 High School. U.S.A. B & W, 75 minutes.

1970 Hospital. U.S.A. B & W, 84 minutes.

1974 Primate. U.S.A. B & W, 105 minutes.

1990 Near Death. U.S.A. B & W, 358 minutes.



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